A 528-inch Hemi crate motor, no restrictor plate, and an invitiation to the Old World
While we did the photography for our NASCAR issue last fall, longtime Mopar enthusiast and driver Tim Wellborn told us the reason why the No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge Daytona was not available for the photo shoot was because it was on its way back from Europe. Moreover, he had just finished a stint of driving exhibitions there, seeing some of the most fabled racecourses in history and actually putting the vintage iron through its paces. The more we talked, it became apparent that Tim's experience deserved to be enjoyed by Mopar Muscle readers. So to celebrate this golden anniversary of the Hemi issue, what could be better than the baddest NASCAR wing car in the history of planet Earth?-Editor
I guess you could say this all started on September 14, 1969. I was a boy, but my father was an avid fan of stock car racing, and we went to the first race at Talledega, Alabama, our home state. The Dodge wing cars made their debut at that race, and I saw this car running at that time. I haven't missed a race there since. Never would I have dreamed that I would someday have a chance to touch, fix, and drive this car, let alone drive it halfway around the world in Europe.
Due to my father's close association with the founders and builders of Alabama International Motor Speed (now Talledega Superspeedway), I was also part of it. It was a great personal honor to be appointed to the track's executive board of directors by the governor of Alabama in 1982, and as a result, I have been intimately involved in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and museum. The library at the museum is now named in part after my father; he did much of the construction work to archive the material.
In 1995, I put a call into then-Chrysler President Bob Lutz. I told him who I was, and that we were trying to get a Hemi engine to put the K&K Daytona we had in the museum's holdings back into running condition. When the late Harry Hyde had donated it to Hall of Fame in 1976, it had a dummy race block in it with all the NASCAR accessories mounted to it. Amazingly, I was able to talk directly to Bob, and he agreed that the car needed to get back together; he was very excited about it. So he told me he would let me have a Mopar Performance mule engine as soon as they were done with it in the test lab. In fact, this engine was the first Hemi built as a production engine since 1971, and moreover, since the factory was developing a stroker package, it was the first 528-inch Hemi from them as well. It was basically shipped to us complete and ready-to-run, with a reported 658 dyno'd horsepower on tap.
Roger Gibson and his crew prepped the car and installed a 528-lung to create the nastiest
We pulled all the original pieces we could from the junk K&K engine-the intake, carburetor, exhaust headers, alternator, dry sump-and they bolted right up in place of the stuff that Mopar had stuck on the crate engine. So other than the actual block, the engine has all of the original NASCAR pieces on it.
Since I own some vintage Mopars myself, restoration man Roger Gibson and I go way back. With an engine secured, I called him and asked him if he would be interested in helping get the car back together. Like Lutz, he was excited and agreed to do it, volunteering to do the work without charge. He prepped the car and then installed the engine, and the car fired right up for the first time in decades. In fact, it has never missed a beat since that time. Remember, this car is truly original in every way, the same suspension and all. Basically, all that has been upgraded is having the engine installed. All of this time, though, we had no intention of actually driving the car on any racetrack; I wanted to take it from being a static museum piece to becoming something that could be started, moved under its own power, taken to car shows, and so on. Roger had the driveshaft balanced, rebuilt the rear end, put a real transmission in it, and even found some N.O.S.-type original Stewart-Warner gauges to replace ones that were broken or gone.
In with fast company at Goodwood (that is the original '55 Kiekhaffer '55 Hemi 300).
One person who gets a lot of credit for this project was Harry Lee Hyde, Harry Hyde's son. He was able to answer a lot of questions, became a good friend of mine, and had a lot of the information still in his dad's files. In fact, we took the car up to North Carolina and he still had the little black books his dad had kept, showing every setting for every track this very car had run on. Spring pressure, tire pressure, shocks, camber, you name it. We were able to set the car up for the Europe trip using that data. Harry Lee also prepped the car for a simulator ride that is on the current Dodge City NASCAR road show, which we did at a small track near Charlotte last winter.
We had taken Buddy Baker's No. 88 Daytona to Europe in 1998, and since I was the only one allowed to drive it due to the museum's insurance, when we got back, it seemed only logical that the K&K car would be even more popular. So in October 1998 I took the now-running K&K car out onto the speedway and did about 35 laps, nothing serious, just getting a feel for it, how it handled. This was on the original biased-ply Goodyear tires! One of the television shows did some filming, and we did a few more faster laps after they left. Though we had no way to calculate speed, these were in excess of 100 miles an hour. Since I had already driven some cars on the speedway, pace cars, plus about 100 laps in a Mercedes V12, I had a feel for the track, but we wanted to be very careful since the car was irreplaceable.
At Talledega, you don't steer into the banking. It transitions from 18 degrees, then to 33 degrees, and a car basically steers itself if set up correctly. It's fun, and all it takes is the weight of your left hand on the steering wheel to direct it where it needs to go in the curves. Ironically, the K&K had never forgotten where it had been, despite the land speed changes made to it for Bobby Isaac to drive it at Bonneville in 1971. It handled beautifully; it was like it woke up from a deep sleep, and after 10 or 15 laps, it really wanted to go.
With Viper tamer Justin Bell at Nurburing.
At about 90 miles an hour, you begin to feel the effects of the aerodynamics, especially the wing. The rear of the car begins to plant itself; you feel like you couldn't spin out, almost an honest feeling of safety. Despite this, at higher speeds, the 528 Hemi still wants to break the rear wheels loose, and on that Third gear-to-Fourth gear shift at speed, the car still tries to go sideways from the unbelievable torque. Once in Fourth, however, there is absolutely no question the car wants to run; 200 miles an hour would be no problem. Without a restrictor plate, it goes far above that margin; in Fourth, you have to let off of it or you'll certainly go that fast. In its present form, it is by far the most powerful NASCAR machine ever-wing car, 528 inches of Hemi and no restrictor plate.
We took it to the Louis Vuitton Classic Car Show in New York City, and I was able meet in person some of the best-known people from the factory, like Bob Lutz, Robert Herlitz, Jim Julow and Tom Gale; this is a very prestigious event. Plans were made to take the car to Europe for some exhibition racing in 1999, and we also had an invitation to bring it to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in Chichester, England.
To get the car over the Atlantic, we prepped it, and Chrysler picked it up at the museum and took it to Atlanta. There, it was put on a platform and went into the belly of a 747. My wife Pam and I would then fly over for events, seven times between 1999 and 2000. The first was a big static car show in Barcelona, Spain. I never did understand fully what the reaction to the giant American car was; I don't speak Spanish! Needless to say, they were excited. The main reason we were at this event was because Chrysler wanted to show the Europeans that we had a long history in motorsports. It was the first year the Vipers were racing at LeMans, so having the K&K car there was part of the factory's racing heritage.
In line to slide up the "hill" at Goodwood in the rain.
Goodwood Festival of Speed
Basically, Goodwood is a series of time trials run up this 3-mile hill to a castle. It is among the premier racing events in England, and many classic cars and famous drivers are there as part of the festivities; everyone you have heard of in international racing goes to it. There are no guardrails, just bales of hay along the sides, and it is very dangerous if a car gets off the course. About 250,000 people show up for this event every year.
The wing car was unique; they had never seen anything like it, and at 20 feet long, it was much larger than any race car over there. Chrysler again wanted to show what the factory had raced 30 years ago. We still had the old pre-Eagle Goodyear tires on it, and we were hot-lapping the car with them. As an aside, I talked with a Goodyear engineer about that and was told that as long as the tires have not been in the sunlight, they stay pretty stable and safe; the sun really ages them.
All day long, a race car will go up the hill every minute-and-a-half or so, and it is run by classes, twice a day for two days. We could not go up that hill as fast as the little Lotuses and cars like that, but we still got a ton of attention. As cars wind up the hill, everyone is hanging over the haybales with their hands over their ears; they had never heard a car like this before, let alone seen one! They loved the sound of the Hemi.
It was also unique from a cultural standpoint. Chrysler treated us very well, and they had rented this huge castle where everyone stayed, complete with chauffered cars for the guests; guests don't drive. This was more than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, it was pretty amazing.
On one of my trips "up the hill" at Goodwood, Emerson Fittipaldi caught me before the top and he had to slow down, which was kind of embarassing, I guess. The K&K car just doesn't like the right turns, and even with speed on the straight section, it wasn't quick enough. We got to the top and I told him I was sorry I had ruined his run; he just laughed. There's a bragging thing that goes on at Goodwood, and people who said, "I'm going to beat Fittipaldi's time," got a chance that day because of me. He could go through the turns a bit better than I could! I let him dance with my wife at the gala black-tie affair that night to make up for it.
The next event was held at Silverstone, another racetrack located in England. It's a road course with two long straights and many (unfortunately) right-hand turns. With this car, it was very hard to go around the curves; it just wasn't designed to go right! So we could accelerate hard down these long straights, but had to get on the brakes and then muscle it around the curves the wrong way. Moreover, as I mentioned, the car is still basically stock; since it has drum brakes, you can imagine what happens once they got hot.
Nightly accommodations and prestige in England; in a word, amazing.
Unlike NASCAR races in the States, this event has an open infield, and the fans can come down and see you at your work area. They respect your space, but like to ask questions. At Silverstone, I did exhibition laps between the actual racing heats with Justin Bell, who was driving the Viper that won at LeMans, and we finally went through those old tires at that event. We went through a whole tank of gas there too; lots of laps.
An elderly gentleman came up to me in this pit area at Silverstone and asked if I would start the car. I politely said, "I will be running the car on the track in few moments, and will be starting it then." His reply was, "I will tell you why I wanted you to start it now. In the Second World War, I flew fighter planes. I have heard you go around the track in this car today, and the engine is the most beautiful sound I have heard since 1943! It sounds like the planes I flew during the war." It was one of the coolest things I'd ever heard anyone say about a Hemi car, and I fired the car up. He leaned down over by the exhaust and grinned from ear to ear.
The people in Europe really did enjoy the Hemi sound, that's what turned them on more than anything else. The museum's Petty 43 car we just restored has a 426-inch crate motor in it, but that 528 Hemi is in a league of its own; it is like afterburners in both sound and power. We never had any problems with the car on the entire trip. Give it good gas, and it would do pretty much whatever you wanted it to.
The next stop was an enormous track in Germany, a very famous road course called Nurburing. It's an older track and has been around about forever. It is also a track we almost continuously had to turn right on. The front part was two long straights, plus an S-curve that was difficult to get the Daytona around. Along the straights in the stands were thousands of fans, all screaming and waving their hands; they wanted to hear the thing run. After we got through the S's, there was a long half-mile straight, and we could really get that Hemi wound up. We probably did 120 laps there; it was a lot of fun, and I had a chance to drive the car and get comfortable with it. We learned what the car would do, and it made us want to drive it faster and faster and faster. Nurburing had the longest straights, but it also had the shortest, tightest turns; we got that feeling of speed on the long straights and then had to get on the brakes to slow it down.
There were about 110,000 people in attendance there, and that was an old-timer sort of historical event. They would do a race of all Ferraris or all Mini-Coopers and had eight heats or so. Justin was there with the LeMans car and a group of Viper owners; 32 cars on the track. They all had mufflers except me, so people always knew where we were on the track. The Vipers kicked my butt on the curves, but we made it up on the straights with the 528; it would just blow by them. After about 20 laps in the car, we had serious brake fade, and we had to begin really prejudging the turn and downshifting the car all the way to Second to slow for them. Since Third gear took us up to 140 mph or so, Fourth was rarely needed.
The guys who drove these cars back then really drove them; this thing will roast you. After a few laps, the temperature in the engine is up; there is no insulation, nothing but a firewall and this huge engine. It is 110 degrees or more in the driver seat. Back then, no cool suits or helmets, and those guys had to fight them, had to turn them, and had to push the brake pedal down with both feet; it's not a friendly car. It's a fun car; it's a safe car; but you never forget it is more of man than you are; the minute you do, you're in trouble.
Chrysler is keeping the car on tour all the time right now; with Dodge's return to the Winston Cup series this year, it will be going all over the country. I will probably make a few laps at Talladega in it this season for exhibition purposes, but we are now focused on getting Richard Petty's No. 43 Charger over to Europe for the '01 Goodwood event. Like most people, I never would have dreamed that I would get a chance to drive the machines that made so much history for NASCAR, and I still have a hard time believing it.